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I feel like Illini fans were somewhat enjoying watching Portal Madness from the sidelines until this afternoon. And then the bombshell hits: Adam Miller is in the transfer portal. There's a lot to cover here so buckle up.
First, we need to talk about the changing landscape of college athletics. What's happening, what will it look like in five years, and how does that affect the beloved? I'm just the man to tell you about it. Finally I get to use my Landscape Architecture degree.
We should start with the "why"? As in, why would the NCAA lift the "you can transfer, but you'll have to sit out a year at your new school before you're eligible" restriction? Well, they haven't, at least not yet. It was up for a final vote in January - just a formality - but the NCAA delayed the vote. Why? I'm going to try to go through this quickly so this might be confusing now but will hopefully make sense by the end.
The vote in January was on two things: the new Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) rules and the loosening of the transfer rule (opening up a one-time, immediately-eligible transfer for all athletes). They delayed that vote because the DOJ sent a letter to the NCAA saying, basically, "uh, maybe don't approve NIL yet until you have all of these things worked out". The NCAA had self-imposed a deadline of January 2021 for NIL reform, and they were trying to meet it, and the DOJ said "uh, you still haven't resolved this other stuff".
Obviously, it's a very complicated issue. If you saw any of the NCAA appearance in front of the Supreme Court this week, you'd understand why. What's the line between amateur and professional? With so much money in college athletics now, is "four years of a free education" fair compensation? If the schools make millions shouldn't the athletes be paid? If you pay the athletes, should we just call it a developmental professional league?
And there are layers upon layers of questions here. Nearly all of Alabama's athletic budget comes from their football program. Shouldn't those players get the majority of that money? But if those players get the money, pretty much every other sport at Alabama, from men's golf to women's soccer, would be eliminated. When the Alabama cross country teams travel to the SEC Championships, their transportation, lodging, food, and everything else is paid for by the football team. Well, not "by" the football team - the money comes from the nine-figure football profits.
And then there's the NCAA profits. More than 90% of the NCAA's budget comes from one thing: the March Madness TV contract. That money doesn't go to the schools - it goes to the NCAA. Yes, that gives Mark Emmert his $2.7 million salary (yes, really), but it also pays for the NCAA Championships for every sport. When the Division II Tennis Championships are being held in Altamonte Springs, Florida in May, the money for the courts and the officials and security and everything else comes from... the March Madness TV contract.
That's an oversimplification - the money also goes to the schools and conferences to keep "college athletics" afloat - but the point is basically this: college football makes the schools rich, and college basketball makes the NCAA rich. The schools, in turn, take the money and make the wrestling team happen, and the NCAA, in turn, takes the money and makes Division III Volleyball happen. So nobody is getting "rich", but come on - Mark Emmert has a $2.7 million dollar salary and Jeff Brohm makes $5.25 million per year (and he went 2-4 last season and 4-8 the season before).
I have to stop here because there's so many different ways to view all of that (and so many different questions that don't really have an answer), but that's our starting point. After the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, NIL reform is coming. Players will be able to profit off themselves (once the DOJ and the NCAA work out the very complicated legal stuff). Next up after that, in my opinion: stipends for players.
But that's another very complicated issue. As the "Jeff Brohm makes $5.25 million and Rondale Moore only gets tuition, room, and board?" volume grows louder, the NCAA will need to respond. Again, the Supreme Court arguments this week centered around all of this. On one hand, are the schools just using up these athletes and then casting them aside, some not even getting the degree that's supposed to be their end of the deal? On the other hand, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked, "How do we know that we're not just destroying the game as it exists?". Pull the wrong Jenga piece and college athletics comes tumbling down, replaced by professional minor leagues unaffiliated with universities.
Again, I know there's a million different #takes you can spin out of that last paragraph. I'm not trying to debate any of it. I wrote all of the words above just to arrive at this:
Why would the NCAA change the rules allow for athletes to transfer without sitting out? Because the NCAA is reeling a little bit, and while reeling, they probably shouldn't place "sure, you can transfer, but you'll have to sit out for a year" restrictions on athletes. They are wanting to - either for appearance reasons or because they believe it is the right thing to do - allow athletes to use their athletic skills to get an education (and prepare themselves for possible professional athletic success) at any institution they choose.
That's the "why" here as I see it. If you're saying "the system in place has worked for decades - student athletes are disincentivized from transferring because they don't want to sit out - and now they're all going to transfer without that rule in place", I think the response here is "well, should they be disincentivized?". The NCAA has looked at whether they should keep that rule in place and have chosen to remove it (even though they still haven't officially removed it yet).
The result is what we see right now. By the end of May, there might be twice as many players in the transfer portal as there were last year. We'll get to Adam Miller in a minute, I promise, but first let's talk about roster construction in 2021.
When the subcommittee approved the removal of the transfer rule in October (that was the big hurdle - the January vote was more of a formality), I tweeted this:
Once approved (final vote is in January), free agency arrives in college athletics. You won’t think much about Hopkins and Nesbitt because you’ll add a wing and a forward from NC State and Creighton (but possibly lose someone to Oregon). https://t.co/6cAvlEfzJA— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) October 28, 2020
That's how I view it. Every player, more or less, is in a contract year. It used to be that every recruit was, in professional terms, "Illini sign Anderson to a four-year deal", and now it's "Illini sign Miller to a one-year deal". We tried to renegotiate and found out today that he's going to test the free agent market.
Obviously it's not that simple. And I should note that the new NCAA rule has "one-time" in it, so the next school to land Adam Miller likely has him for three more years (or less if he turns pro). If he were to transfer again, he'd have to sit out. So it's not like we're going to see players go to four schools in four years.
But that's the structure we're looking at right now. Every year you're (somewhat) recruiting every player on your roster again. Let's use Ohio State last year as an example.
Ohio State had brought in this great 2019 recruiting class with three top-50 players. Point guard DJ Carton, forward EJ Liddell, and big man Alonzo Gaffney. After one season, both Carton and Gaffney transfer out.
But they weren't the only players leaving. Luther Muhommad, who had started 28 of 30 games for Ohio State in 2020, transferred to Arizona State. Leading scorer Kaleb Wesson declared early for the draft and his brother Andre Wesson graduated. So Ohio State was left with five holes in their roster.
So how did they get to a 2-seed this year? Well, first off, Chris Holtmann is a pretty good coach. But they also were a team with three transfers playing significant minutes - CJ Walker (Florida State), Justice Seuing (California), and Seth Towns (Harvard). A fourth transfer, Abel Porter from Utah State, would have played significant minutes but he missed the entire season due to a medical condition. And a fifth transfer (Jimmy Sotos from Bucknell) played 10 minutes per game in the first 12 games (starting two) before a shoulder injury ended his season.
That seems to be more-or-less the direction college basketball is heading. Half your guys are players you've developed. Half your guys are players you brought in from the transfer portal. Why? Because half your guys left through the transfer portal. Let's talk about it.
I did three mailbag posts last week, but there were some additional questions on the Slack channel and I answered them there. Here's how I answered the question about transfers:
That's how I'm viewing most rosters moving forward. Same with football. I've seen a lot of "Bielema has kept nearly everyone in town!", but it's possible there are seven transfers out after spring ball. Nothing is really "set" until the next season starts. We've seen very few transfers so far, but there's still four months to go.
And I do really think that "is in the transfer portal" does not mean "has decided to leave". I remember writing about this in a post last year. You put your name in, you see who contacts you, you judge whether you might want to do that, you either jump at it or your pull your name out an return. Yes, you're risking the coach saying "sorry - we already filled your spot", but let's be honest: if Adam Miller called Brad Underwood in two weeks and said "I'd like to come back", he'd take him back with open arms.
That's kind of the point here, I think. Giving power to the players. Yes, my father would be screaming "you commit to a school, you stay committed to that school because loyalty is everything", and that's probably the reason I stayed at my last job for 24 years (same company, same desk, same chair), but I can also see how this new setup gives power to the players. They're the ones taking on the 80-hour weeks, and they're the ones trying to give themselves the best opportunity to play professionally some day, so they're the ones who should be able to choose a new situation penalty-free.
Yes, there are pitfalls, and yes, it's hard (for us) to see a better career opportunity than to be the leading scorer at Illinois next year catching passes from Andre Curbelo. But I probably follow my father's "seeing something through is always the better option than quitting in hopes of something better" a little too religiously. I'm not Adam Miller, and if Adam Miller wants to look for a better environment to prepare himself for the NBA without having to sit out a year, he should be able to do that.
As a fan? As a fan this is a rough moment. If Kofi declares for (and stays in) the draft, we'll basically lose our starting five. Yes, Jacob Grandison started the final 16 games while Da'Monte came off the bench, but Da'Monte averaged 24.9 minutes per game and Grandison averaged 15.3. You could see a team built around Miller, Curbelo, Grandison, Hawkins, and Giorgi (with Ohio State-like transfers filling many of the other roles). Building around just Curbelo, Grandison, Hawkins, and Giorgi? Man, losing 146.2 of your 200 minutes is more or less starting over.
So that leaves me in prayer. Please, God, somehow let Kofi come back. If my kids ask me what I want for Father's Day I'll tell them "I want Adam Miller to pull his name out of the portal". I'll never ask for any miracle ever again if Nimari Burnett could just somehow join Belo in the backcourt next season.
We knew next year would be a step back, but if Kofi goes, next year is basically a restart. We'd be down to one RSCI top-100 player (Curbelo) after this year's four top-50 players led us to a one-seed. Belo is a great piece to build around, but it's such a long drop from "Illinois, fresh off their Big Ten Tournament win, gets the one-seed in the Midwest region".
OK, Transfer Portal. You've taken away. Time to giveth.